I’ve been involved in online discussion forums since 1989. This was back when the way that you had a conversation was through BBS systems. These systems required you to call them up via modem, and then you could post comments, log off, and then call back in a few hours to see if anyone else replied. They were mostly single line systems, meaning that only one person could be viewing the forum at a time. Sometimes debates would get heated, and arguments would go on for weeks, but in general, people took time to think about what they were posting.
With the advent of the internet, online forums moved into lightspeed. People could hit us a discussion site and have long winded conversations over the course of an afternoon, in almost real-time. You no longer had to wait and absorb what people said, but you could respond immediately, from your gut. Despite this, many of these forums were still mostly civil, and people managed to keep things from getting out of hand. I actually met many good friends on a Christian on-line discussion site called Christdot.org. We would have tons of debates, but we all knew that this is why we were there, and in most cases we didn’t take it personally.
Then came the advent of social media like Facebook and Twitter. At this point in my life I’m in a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I like Facebook for what it was originally intended to be. A place to share what you were doing, eating, drinking, asking for recommendations on things, or for planning get togethers with friends, etc.,. This is how I mostly use Facebook, as a place to communicate brief things about real world life. Almost everyone that I’m a friend with on Facebook is someone I’ve met in the real world, usually through the running world, and occasionally through beer culture.
Because of this, I avoid debates on Facebook like the plague. I realized a couple years ago that debates on Facebook often lead to anger and hurt in the real world. When I was on Christdot, I was there with the intention of having discussion. I knew that some of them might get intense, but that was the purpose of me being there. On Facebook, it all feels way more personal. I have a very hard time with the idea of getting into a heated debate with someone, at the same time that they’re showing off pictures of their kid doing something cute.
One could argue that this is a good thing. Perhaps that humanizing element makes me think twice about what I post, but that’s simply not the way things work on a site like Facebook that promotes instant gratifications and dopamine hits. Everything about Facebook steers you towards posting quickly and posting often. The entire algorithm of how posts are presented to you is based on how much you’ve interacted with them. A “like” over here, or a quick comment over there, suddenly alters the entire thread of news that you see in your feed. So you end up naturally posting lots of quick things, or clicking like and trying to move on. That changes the nature of trying to have an online debate with someone.
One of the key problems with online debates is that you’re limited by the written word. People have been debating via written word for thousands of years. It’s not a new art form in any way, but it’s not an easy one either. Debating via written word along takes time, thought, planning, and plain hard work. That’s because in a written word discussion, all you have is the words on the page. You miss out on all of the other things that happen in a real-life conversation. Tone of voice, body language, facial expression, and the physical presence of another breathing human, can completely change the way that words are interpreted and delivered.
I’ve had plenty of meatspace conversations that have been powerful and meaningful, yet if those debates had happened in text, they would have taken on a completely different feel. Seeing the emotion in a person’s face changes the way that you present facts. Reacting to a surprised body movement can cause you to alter your vocal tone of your statement. There’s simply thousands of things that we do in a real life interaction that can’t be translated to text on a written page/screen.
That’s not to say that written debates aren’t good. They’re amazing and wonderful exercises that have shaped the course of human history since it’s inception. But in my mind, they have a certain place, and that place is not on sites like Facebook. On sites like Facebook everything is so reactionary and quick that you end up being invited over to someone’s house for a BBQ, and at the same time, in a different thread, being told you’re a “fucking asshole” because of your political views.
Facebook is meant to save us time, and the fact that you can get invited over to someone’s place for an impromptu BBQ is awesome. It takes mere moments to put out a call for people to gather. But it also takes mere moments to react out of emotion, without thinking. The entire notion of memes in online debates is the paragon of this lazy type of discussion. Why spend time typing up a reasoned argument when I can just post a picture with a pithy, inaccurate, and incendiary witty phrase? Pictures are worth a thousand words, but memes are often a waste of 999 of them.
It’s for this reason that I now severely limit what I do on Facebook. I love Facebook for what it does well; gives people a place to connect around life and events. But if you want to have a deep discussion with me, or a robust debate? Then let’s meet somewhere else. There are plenty of online forums like Reddit or topic based sites for that type of discussion. Or even better yet, use Facebook to invite me out for a beer, and let’s hash it out in person. Human to human, in real life with real emotions and real empathy.